Subtle but effective – New Zealand’s latest brand of cricket ©Getty
It was an epoch of belief, it was an epoch of incredulity. It was a campaign of light but a final of darkness. New Zealand even had a catchphrase for their 2015 World Cup. “The time of our lives,” inspired in parts from a Green Day song of a similar theme. Six times before, they’d made semis, then Brendon McCullum thrillingly took the country one step further and offered a rugby-mad nation an alternative. They sang with him. He wrote to them. They danced to his tunes and fell in line with his every request.
And then six months later he was gone. He didn’t so much as whimper away to a finish, than walk into the sunset with the fastest Test hundred in tow. When Australia still beat him, he walked over from first slip to gully where a certain Kane Williamson stood and gave him a handshake and a hug. Not a high-five and a bear hug, mind you. It was a symbolic changing of the guard.
“This is your team now.”
Given the impact of the McCullum’s World Cup, it is easy to yearn for the “crazy days” of four slips and 50 in three overs in an ODI game. He may have even inspired England’s current brand of cricket, which his own side has quietly stepped away from. But that revolution was necessitated by the need of the hour.
In 2013, two years after the captaincy turmoil had crippled New Zealand cricket, they were bowled out for 45 at Cape Town. McCullum and Mike Hesson sat in the hotel room and decided that the team’s public perception in New Zealand had to change. They came to a conclusion that only a complete shake-up, in methods and efforts, could effectively change who they’d become: “A group of overpaid, under-achieving prima donnas.”
The phase ended with McCullum’s retirement. It would be foolhardy to expect the successor, Williamson, to continue in the same vein and not impose his own personality on the team. As one of the world’s best batsmen, he commanded respect. He also had the tactical nous, inbred and inherited from McCullum-Hesson, to formulate the road map.
Onto 2019 World Cup, New Zealand have donned the once familiar fly-under-the-radar-cloak but are not the one bit less effective for it. Their consistent performances over the last three years have them as high up as No.4 in the list and remain very capable of outsmarting higher-ranked teams like India. They believe, if they were to play another final this time, they’ll have more than one way to win the match.
Incidentally, they will start this World Cup campaign against the same opposition that witnessed the start of their 2015 juggernaut and therefore comparisons become inevitable. Trust Williamson to put that in perspective.
“It was a lot of fun that tournament,” he said. “I guess for us at the last World Cup, there was a trend in how we played. It was about being smart with the crop that we had to try and get the best performance that we could get. It meant we were aggressive in how we played. The ball swung. We looked to utilize that as well as we could.
“We’re yet to know, I guess, how things will shape in this tournament. For us, our cricket that we want to play, we reflect back over the last few years as a group that we’ve been growing together. It’s been about adjusting to conditions and opposition to try and move the team forward.
Maybe this was what they needed, as McCullum predicted, in its next phase of evolution – a little more professionalism and consistency. To that extent, Williamson has been the ideal follow-up.
“Whether it’s guys having to push a bit harder on a particular surface on a given day, then that may be what’s required. Equally, it may not be the case and it’s about guys adjusting to perhaps what one-day cricket used to look a little bit more like where the scores are a little bit lower and much more scrappy type mentality,” he adds.
Does this shift in attitude, or even the lack of a public catchphrase make Williamson’s New Zealand outsiders to the title? Is that why no one is talking about them as much.
“Yeah, it’s okay. Some people may be saying something about us. I’m not sure. We’re talking about us,” Williamson said.
“No, we’re just excited to get involved. We know that there are sides ranked higher and are favorites in these conditions, but once again, it’s about us playing the sort of cricket that we want to be playing and showing those sort of attributes, characteristics, that are really important to us as a side to try and be a competitive side day in and day out.
“When we are that, we know we can beat anybody,” says Williamson. They may lack some flair of McCullum’s marauders but the warm-up game against India served another reminder, and that is those words from Williamson cannot to be taken lightly.